Pretty Baby Brooke Shields Controversy


Some movies deliberately court controversy to gain widespread publicity, which obviously affect the box office grosses. Some movies don’t intend to court any controversy but end up drawing the ire of critics, activists and the general public. It is tough to draw a line between artistic freedom and what is art. If art is truly boundless then there should not be any definition or distinction of what is acceptable and what is not. But how art is conceived, presented and perceived does make a lot of difference.

The Controversy Surrounding Pretty Baby

Pretty Baby Brooke Shields controversy is one of the most longstanding issues that have plagued the history of cinema. In 1978, when the movie, Pretty Baby, was released, there was furore among fans and detractors alike. There were many organisations, especially those of social activists and religious groups, which found the movie to be outright offensive, needless and a disgrace to the art of cinema.

But Pretty Baby was a success at the box office and it did gain a lot of critical acclaim from renowned movie buffs.

Reason for Controversy

There were two primary reasons for the Pretty Baby Brooke Shields controversy. The first was the central plot of the film. The story revolved around a twelve year old prostitute, played by Brooke Shields. The child prostitute lived in and worked in the red light district of New Orleans. If the subject of child prostitution was not enough for the Pretty Baby Brooke Shields controversy, there was nudity of a child actor. Brooke Shields was barely thirteen years old when the film released which made her exactly twelve years old when the movie was in production. Filming a twelve year old girl and getting her to go nude is reason enough to cause a controversy. And it was 1978, which was pretty far back from the era of Lady Gaga and outrageous on-stage outfits and blatant disregard for aesthetics.

Result of Controversy

Brooke Shields did get her share of fame and so did the makers of the film but the film didn’t make her a star in the later years and she had to struggle through the years of the controversy and for many years after.

Pretty Baby was released with an R rating in the US. It was released with an R18+ rating in Australia and UK released it with an 18 rating. Some Canadian provinces banned the release of the movie entirely. Many pegged the theme of the movie as child pornography. It was not looked down upon as much as Lolita but it did have many people calling out the director as a filmmaker championing perversion.

Movie critics were much kinder to the film than what the general Pretty Baby Brooke Shields controversy raked up. Vincent Canby of the New York Times had noted that “Mr. Malle, the French director…has made some controversial films in his time but none, I suspect, that is likely to upset convention quite as much as this one – and mostly for the wrong reasons. Though the setting is a whorehouse, and the lens through which we see everything is Violet, who … herself becomes one of Nell’s chief attractions, Pretty Baby is neither about child prostitution nor is it pornographic.”

While Canby denied with the standpoint that Pretty Baby Brooke Shields controversy took, he also suggested that the film is “…the most imaginative, most intelligent, and most original film of the year to date.”

Globally loved critic of Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert inferred that “Pretty Baby has been attacked in some quarters as child porn. It’s not. It’s an evocation of a time and a place and a sad chapter of Americana.” Ebert had also praised Brooke Shields for her performance, stating that she “…really creates a character here; her subtlety and depth are astonishing.”

From the likes of Variety to many less renowned print media, there were voices that praised the Palme d’Or and Academy Award winning director, Louis Malle, and the work of Brooke Shields along with that of Susan Sarandon.

This history of cinema has dozens of such controversies. From Lolita to 9 Songs, Cannibal Holocaust to Crash, Kids to The Brown Bunny, Salo to Antichrist, there are many films which have more outrageous and horrendously perverse and fetishist sex scenes, abuse, rape, violence and detestable themes.

Pretty Baby Brooke Shields controversy was not as big as some of the aforementioned films but given the time when it released and the social circumstances back in the 70s, it is not hard to imagine why the film got the treatment that it did. Antichrist, released much later, did court controversy but it was also loved by a large section of critics and avid movie buffs.

That brings one to a question, who decides what is perversion and fetishism and what is art?